On July 4, parts of Five Points were unreachable, due to barricades and deep, standing water. It was only one of many parts of the city that flooded and have flooded due to heavy rainfall from a large thunderstorm.
Columbia has had its' share of natural disasters in recent years, the most infamous being the October 2015 floods. That year the Columbia Canal overflooded after the embankment washed away due to record-breaking rainfall, forcing residents to evacuate and claiming the lives of 19 people. The canal was out of commission and many were left without a clean water source for over a week.
“That was kind of the perfect storm of floods,” Christopher Long, a graduate student in the Department of Geography at USC, said. “Some of those floods came up, like really fast, and people weren’t really expecting it. And then all of a sudden their house was underwater.”
Prior to 2015, South Carolina's last major disaster declaration for flooding was Hurricane Fran in 1996, which mainly affected the Carolina coastal zone. Columbia itself went 10 years without any major flooding disaster until 2015. Since then, the city has risen to the occasion as flooding events have occurred each year up until the present, according to Harry Tinsley — the director of emergency management for the city of Columbia.
"Since 2015, the city has been very aggressive in ramping up the preparedness of what we do as a city to be able to be more resilient,” Tinsley said. “In 2016, the city disestablished the Office of Emergency Management, where it was under the police department previously and dedicated (new) staff to run the emergency operations center around the clock and do all the preparedness things that need to happen."
Since the October 2015 floods, the city has continued to enact certain measures, such as installing a new water intake and barricading flood zones, to improve the infrastructure so the city is not as vulnerable as it once was.
“It’s been unacceptable for us to think of just repairing,” Clint Shealy, assistant city manager of Columbia Water, said. “We didn’t realize we were that vulnerable, it’s kind of that unthinkable thing. So, we’re thinking differently and building back in a more resilient way.”
In order to accomplish this, Shealy said there are many plans to repair and rebuild the canal that are still in the works. Columbia Water reached an agreement with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) in 2020 to repair the embankment in order to operate the hydroelectric facility again.
Another part of the same agreement was that FEMA would donate a grant to build a brand new raw water intake directly from the Broad River in case of a future breach of the canal. This would mean that they have an independent supply of uncontaminated water coming in that could be distributed to customers.
“The new grant that we’ve got — it's over $30 million,” Shealy said. “That gives us complete redundancy, fantastic resiliency, so if that would have been in place in October of 2015, we would have simply started pumping directly out of the river and our customers would have never known the difference."
Shealy also said that after the 2015 floods, they added a temporary rock dam to the canal to control the flow of water, just short of the original enbankment breach. This control is important because overflow means flooding, and this dam allows a controlled release of water whenever that is needed. There are also pumps on hand in case of dam overflow.
If there is potential for heavy rain, the city keeps an eye on flood-prone areas, such as Whaley Street, Main Street and Five Points, and sees that the systems in place are functioning, according to Robert Anderson, the Public Works director.
With these specific flood-prone areas, Tinsley said there are flood gates available to aid with drainage and to alert city staff to close the street for flooding.
“There’s been a lot of projects, engineering projects, to address that. And it’s really improved in the recent years,” Tinsley said. “But it's one of those things where I don’t care what your infrastructure system is, if you get three inches an hour of rain, that's tough for anything to handle that kind of water.”
Anderson said managing the drainage system to make it function properly includes a lot of prior preparation, including routinely cleaning and clearing of the storm drains.
“We check to make sure the inlet blocks or the storm drains are cleaned off, they’re raked off. We check the pipe for any obstructions,” Anderson said. “We’ve actually pre-staged barricades in our flood-prone areas, so they’re easier to deploy. We’ve done that for probably the past 20 years."
Anderson said there is then a lot of waiting done to see if the drains are overwhelmed by the amount of water, and if that happens, the city does its best to shut down roads to stop people from driving through deep pools of water. After the flooding lessens, the city cleans the whole system to make sure it is properly functioning.
In addition to these sorts of measures in place, there are plenty of precautions that an everyday person can undertake, according to Susan Cutter, a Carolina Distinguished professor and director of the Hazards Vulnerability and Resilience Institute in the Department of Geography at USC.
Cutter said people should make sure they have water, food, cash — since electronic payments will not work — and a solar battery to charge cellular devices.
“If they’re unprepared, they’re not ready for the consequences of the event,” Cutter said. “Those minimal sorts of things that help people better prepare for an event, so that when it happens, they can recover really, really quickly.”
According to Brett Robertson, an assistant professor in the School of Information and Mass Communications — whose research focuses on communication in disaster-related context — everyone needs to come together to help everyone be better prepared and to improve communication.
“Every household should have an emergency supply kit and an emergency communication plan put in place,” Robertson said. “Collectively, we need to have solutions and conversations statewide, locally, to figure out what resources we need to better serve our communities, and so I think if we continue to have those conversations, we can be prepared for the next disaster.”